Muslim students who observe Ramadan have found themselves fasting during the most stressful time of the academic year. How are colleges helping them?
May 14, 2019
Yahya Abdul-Basser, the president of Cornell University’s Muslim Educational and Cultural Association, wakes up around 3:30 a.m. to eat a meal before the sun rises, when fasting for Ramadan begins.
He wakes up again at 6 a.m. for morning prayers and then falls asleep again for a couple more hours before taking on the most intense weeks of the academic year — those preceding and during final exams.
And he will do it all — writing papers, studying for hours — without eating or drinking for 14 to 15 hours at a stretch.
“It’s been actually been more difficult than I expected,” Abdul-Basser said. “Earlier in the day it’s fine, but around five or six my blood sugar gets really low to the point of crashing a little bit.”
Ramadan — the Muslim holiday in which observers fast from dawn until dusk for a full month in an attempt to become closer to Allah — this year falls between May 5 and June 4. This is also the period when most colleges and universities hold their exams. Observant Muslims are used to the requirements by the time they attend college, but Ramadan does not typically overlap completely with the end of the semester.
This overlap has led Muslim students across the country to seek accommodations — particularly around meals, but also in their academics as well. Many institutions have instructed professors to try to help students in various ways, such as changing their exam times.
The month Ramadan is observed shifts every year, but the way the Islamic calendar works means that Muslim students will be dealing with the conflict between the holiday and one of the most stressful times in the academic year for years to come.
Abdul-Basser said he and his peers tried to alert administrators to this a couple months ahead of Ramadan this year. Officials stepped up, providing Muslim students with boxed meals for the early morning hours and extending the hours of some dining halls for when students break their fast, he said.
But the system isn’t perfect, Abdul-Basser said, though the university’s measures were better than last year, when the premade meals for breaking fast were just a sandwich and a juice box. Students need to contact their professors individually to try to arrange an alternative time for their tests or other assignments when they would have preferred a blanket mandate from the university, Abdul-Basser said.
Rebecca Valli, a Cornell spokeswoman, provided a reporter with a link to the university’s policies on religious holiday observations, which states that the institution “is committed to supporting students who wish to practice their religious beliefs” and should contact instructors in advance of religious holidays and that professors should be accommodating of work that needs to be made up.
Similar notices have been sent campuswide at many other institutions. Earlier this spring, the University of Minnesota Twin Cities emailed instructors reminding them of holiday observances, including Ramadan, Good Friday and Passover. The email specifically noted that Ramadan would coincide with finals week, said spokesman Jake Ricker.
The Muslim Student Association and Al-Madinah Cultural Center there worked together to develop a template letter that would help Muslim students request the special accommodations, Ricker said.
“The students who drafted this document shared that they wanted to assist their fellow Muslim students and make them more comfortable in requesting accommodations, and to make it easy for them to help their instructors understand the validity of the request. The letter included background about the religious significance of fasting and prayer during Ramadan,” Ricker said.
Boston University sent out the same type of message to professors, as did the University of California, Berkeley, and Princeton University.
Bryan White, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington at Bothell, took his accommodations above and beyond.
Three years ago, a star student in one of his classes who had been successful on every other test bombed her final exam. He met with her later, and she offered no excuses but said as a Muslim she had been fasting.
A year later, White decided to hold two sessions of his final exam: one at the typical time during the morning and the other late at night, for Muslim students, to allow them a chance to eat before the test. A couple of his colleagues joined him. The story went viral and was picked up by 40 different news outlets, White said.
And now the practice has been widely copied on the campus of about 5,000 students, White said. Instead of holding a night exam, White said he’s consulted with Muslim students and decided to pick a morning time slot, because an exam in the evening can interfere with the nighttime prayers.
White’s advocacy led to a law being passed in Washington this year that requires professors to reschedule tests for students who are observing religious practices or holidays, as long as students provide written notice to their instructor. Governor Jay Inslee signed the bill in April. Colleges and universities must also advertise the accommodations on their websites and include it in any syllabi.
“It’s truly easier than anyone thinks,” White said of rescheduling exam times. “We got more people on board when we just reminded them they’re always making accommodations. People have to go out for sports — they might miss an exam if they’re on the football team, or miss an exam because of a wedding, or miss an exam because they’re sick. This is just one more. The whole process is actually easier than everyone thinks it will be, and it’s sustainable.”